CEDAR FALLS — James Betz arrived on the University of Northern Iowa campus a muscular 6-foot-6 freshman longshot to earn an immediate spot in the Panthers’ main rotation.
UNI coach Ben Jacobson saw upside in the first commit of his 2019 recruiting class, who averaged 18.5 points and 10.3 rebounds with two blocked shots and two 3-pointers per game as a senior on Class 2A Garner-Hayfield-Ventura’s 16-7 team. Still, there were initial discussions among members of the Panther coaching staff that Betz could benefit from a redshirt year to sharpen his frontcourt skills.
Center Austin Phyfe looked ready to handle major minutes in his return from a medical redshirt, while Missouri Valley Conference all-improved team selection Luke McDonnell and 7-footer Justin Dahl were entering their senior seasons after navigating the previous year as rotation regulars.
Yet as UNI prepared for its foreign trip to Italy, Betz kept getting better and better.
“He had started to open our eyes a little bit that we may need to re-think this in terms of where we’re at in the rotation and who has earned which minutes,” Jacobson said. “Then he played great in the scrimmage against South Dakota State, and we continued to get him some practice reps and he’s taken off.”
Two games into UNI’s 2019-20 season, Betz has earned the first crack at backing up Phyfe — showcasing quickness from the high post to low block, relentless pursuit of rebounds and the willingness to make opponents work for everything they get in the paint. Betz has tallied 10 points and four rebounds — two offensive — in his first 20 minutes of collegiate court time.
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“He deserves a lot of credit,” Jacobson said. “Not knowing what his role was going to be as a true freshman, he came in here this summer and just lived in the gym.”
Jacobson views Betz and fellow freshman forward Noah Carter as key reserves capable of supplying 12 to 15 minutes a game, while freshman point guard Antwan Kimmons may be getting closer to earning a second 3- to 4-minute stretch off the bench.
UNI (2-0) begins a stretch of four home games in eight days when the Panthers host California State University-Bakersfield (1-1) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the McLeod Center.
Bakersfield suffered a 93-91 Saturday double-overtime home loss to South Dakota State. The Roadrunners will offer a contrast in style from UNI, playing up-tempo with full-court pressure. They scored 21 points off 19 turnovers and added 17 second-chance points against SDSU.
Shawn Stith, a 6-foot-8, 265-pound center, presents the type of interior scoring threat neither of UNI’s first two opponents demonstrated. Stith is averaging 22 points a game, shooting 69 percent from the field and making 22 of 25 free-throw attempts.
“He’s got a great feel on the block,” Jacobson said. “He’s big and mobile — really good footwork, really good hands, able to get to the free throw line. That’s going to be a fun matchup to see him and Austin go at it a little bit.”
GOLDMAN TO REDSHIRT — Jacobson announced Monday that forward Biggie Goldman will redshirt this season and use the graduate transfer rule to find a place next year where he is playing a larger role. Goldman will remain a full-time member of the UNI program this season.